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Old Bones - Background to the Book

People often ask writers where the original ideas for their books come from. Like most, I’d answer: ‘Various places - it depends on the particular book.’ Also, a book can ‘start’ at various points. Sometimes what you get is a beginning without an ending, sometimes it’s vice versa or both, or a discrete scene from the middle; sometimes it’s an abstract idea, a scam or a particular character. In the case of Old Bones the trigger was twofold. First came the title, which I wanted to use before it took on any connotations whatsoever with respect to a plot. I’d used the sentence ‘Old age, old crimes; Livia’ at the start of Germanicus, but in retrospect I misremembered the first phrase as ‘Old bones’, and I liked the musty, seedy, disreputable sound of it. If I’d been able to rename Ovid, I would’ve called it Old Bones. As it was, what I had was a title looking for a book.

The second trigger was a vivid mental picture of Priscus - Corvinus’s antiquities-nut stepfather - in an Etruscan tomb. He’s been there several hours, doing whatever Priscus does in tombs, and he’s just finished; at which point he realises that since he came in he’s been absent-mindedly stepping back and forwards over the very modern corpse of a man lying spreadeagled on the floor with an obvious knife in his back. The look of horror on Priscus’s face kept me chuckling for days before I thought in terms of what was going on. Not that that’s how the book actually starts, mind, although tombs are very much involved and Priscus does find himself - and is found to be - standing over a knifed corpse holding the knife. (Incidentally, if you read the story in hardback look at the jacket blurb. I am not responsible for the sentence: ‘But he did discover the corpse, and left his fingerprints all over the murder weapon...’ I thought I’d nailed that one before publication with a frantic phone call to Hodder, steam coming out of my ears, but evidently I hadn’t. It’s one of the very, very few examples of my publisher cocking up, although at the time I’d gladly have strangled the perpetrator, whoever they were, with my bare hands).

There was a third trigger to the story, one of the ‘real’ historical links I try to make use of in every book where possible, but I won’t give you that in case you want to read the thing and I spoil the ending for you. I’m quite proud of that one, especially since - at the time of planning the book - I didn’t know that there was a link.

I do hope you enjoy Old Bones if you read it (or enjoyed it if you’ve read it already): it was certainly a book I very much enjoyed writing, especially after The Horse Coin. And the look on Priscus’s face still has me chuckling.

David Wishart (May 2006)

read the 1st chapter

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